Aug 19, 2011

The secular condition & praying against meth

What is one to think of this?
"The Scott County [Tenn.] Sheriff's Department believes there is a connection in the number of people praying for the county and the number of methamphetamine lab busts officers have made since prayers started four months ago."
How does one understand law enforcement officials attributing their success in busting meth labs  to divine help? Not to their leadership, or to the good work of deputies, or the effectiveness of crime-fighting initiatives, but divine help.

Politically, would be the obvious way to think about it.

Isn't it "respecting an establishment of religion," for example, when the sheriff's office organizes an officially "non-denominational" public prayer event that's nonetheless explicitly Christian, and which seems to be led by a rotation of Baptist ministers? The Tennessee State Constitution says "no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship" and "no man can of right be compelled to ... support any place of worship." Presumably this would include via tax dollars going to the sheriff while he, in his official capacity, plans a revival.

Counter the state and federal constitutions, the chief deputy of Scott County's Sheriff's Office and dept. spokesman says, "There’s no doubt that this is still a Christian county." The prayer events were also attended and supported, according to the local newspaper, by a number of county officials, school board members, uniformed officers and EMTs.

One could also ask about the anti-government politics of government officials such as this Tennessee sheriff, who told TV reporters "We seem to look at government for our solutions and a lot of people like myself don't think government can solve these problems.... I think God is the answer." He told other reporters, "We have officers assigned to combat the drug problem, but it's not working. There's probably people in law enforcement who don't want to hear that, but it's not working."

If the sheriff doesn't think the sheriff's dept. is a solution to crime, what is the point of being sheriff? Why have those officers been assigned to combat the drug problem? Are they going to be reassigned? And why do people support officials who not only do not have a plan to solve the problems their department is supposed to be concerned with, but officials who fundamentally do not believe it would be possible for them to solve such problems in their official capacities?

The politics is easy, though. This is the obvious way to think about it.

Think past the politics. Deeper. What's underlying the above?

How should one think of this -- "The Scott County [Tenn.] Sheriff's Department believes there is a connection in the number of people praying for the county and the number of methamphetamine lab busts officers have made since prayers started four months ago" -- not in terms of political issues or points, but, instead, about what it says about religion in American today?

If by "religion" we mean, in the terms of cultural studies, "that which is experienced as religious," then it is the case that a spate of meth lab busts north of Knoxville was a religious event. It was experienced as religious, attributed to the intervention of a higher power, but the very people officially involved.

How do we make sense of how it was religious, though?

There is a version of the idea of secularity that says the secular condition is one in which religion is confined to a specific sphere. The idea is "differentiation."

That is, that as Western societies grew more complex, with professionalization of certain jobs and industrialization creating a specific economic sector of society and breaking up the undifferentiated rural life of family/work/church/state/etc., life got broken up into spheres. The same thing that happens to work in the factory -- where the work was divided into discrete jobs -- happened in society. Now, the idea goes, there's a domestic sphere distinct from an economic one, private spheres where there can be such a thing as freedom of conscious and privacy, and a sphere that's specifically religious, cordoned off from the others.

This idea serves to explain several things. For example, how religion is personal, today, in the manner of opinions, as opposed to how it was public and communal in medieval Europe, with regions rather than individuals being the primary possessors of religion. Or how religion is taken as a distinct subset of activities. Or how you could have an airplane full of people who believe in the efficacy of prayer and who themselves pray easily and frequently for divine intervention, and yet they'd still, if a pilot got on the intercom of a 747 while flight attendants demonstrated seat belt usage and briefly prayed for a higher power to help fly the plane -- "Dear Lord, you said not to rely on the wisdom of men and the technologies of this world. Tonight I am placing my trust in you to fly this plane, because I know I cannot do it on my own" -- would most likely panic.

That is to say, there are spheres. Prayer in your seat for a safe flight is not unsettling. A pilot's private prayer would be fine. In public, though, it's panic-inducing.

Charles Taylor says this version of secularity is thought of in terms of public spaces, which "have been allegedly emptied of God, or of any reference to ultimate reality." This idea of our secular condition is that
"as we function within various spheres of activity -- economic, political, cultural, educational, professional, recreational -- the norms and principles, the deliberations we engage in, generally don't refer to God or to any religious beliefs, the considerations we act on are internal to the 'rationality' of each sphere."
There are some, of course, who want to give this separation of spheres a prescriptive force. That's a different issue -- for the academics subscribing to this view of secularity, it's strictly an idea of what is the case, an explanation of our current condition.

There are several problems with this version of secularity, though. Some of them, Taylor and others have pointed out. Some of them, this news story from Tennessee brings into focus.

For example, in this case religion was not experienced as restricted to a specific, private sphere. It's very much out in public, where, supposedly, references to religion and ultimate reality weren't even supposed to make sense anymore.

This is religion, and is taken as religion by those involved.

One could conclude, of course, that it's just the case that Tennessee isn't in a secular condition (e.g. "There’s no doubt that this is still a Christian county"). Except, it's not simply the case the religious interpretation of these meth busts was the only interpretation. It's quite possible to see them as simply the result of police work, officers stumbling across labs being the natural result in a sharp increase in the number of labs. To attribute it to divine intervention requires an argument -- evidence -- as this isn't necessary it be understood this way, isn't the default framing of the experience.

It can be experienced as religious. Or not.

The Independent Herald, the Scott County paper, reported on the meth busts without mentioning the prayer rally (which were covered in a separate piece), without any sense of there being a big, explanatory piece of the story mentioned. The sheriff apparently does think the meth busts are best understood in the context of the revival, but it's possible, as evidenced by the news piece, to understand them just fine without thinking there's anything religious going on at all.

A local online poll says 41% of Scott County newspaper readers think public prayers against meth will help. Another 27% say it can't hurt, and 27% take the negative position, saying prayer won't help.
The Tennessean reported the news of the public prayer meeting pretty straight, but notes in the headline, that the sheriff's dept. "sees" a connection, which implies they could have not seen one too. Presumably, there are other busts, other arrests, which aren't understood as resulting from divine intervention, and these busts could have been taken that way as well.

It's possible to understand this as religious, but that understanding is not just obvious. It's an option among options, a choice. Even with a rudimentary sense of how the readers of any of these news sources might read a story, one can trace out a variety of possible, alternative responses readers might have. It's an easy guess that there are various ractions that readers could have -- positions that are available, plausible, depending on one's social context and cultural position.

This means, though, that those who experience these busts as religious have, in some sense, chosen, to experience them this way rather than anther way. That experience came burdened with the possibility it could have been other than it is -- there's a rejection, at least implicitly, of alternative accounts.

It's not the case that the religious experience in Tennessee could simply taken for granted as religious. It's not really possible, even in the devoutly religious communities in the Appalachians, to be what Peter Berger calls "the happy possessor of an anima naturaliter christiana, a 'naturally Chrisitan soul,'" who would so take for granted that an experience was religious that it wouldn't just be a good explanation, a plausible explanation, or the best explanation, but the only one possible. It's now the case that belief in divine intervention doesn't feel -- even to those who feel it most strongly -- as beyond question and beyond doubt as gravity, as breathing, as death and taxes. Instead, belief in the supernatural must be asserted, again to quote Berger, "in the teeth of a cognitively antagonistic world."

This is the condition of experiencing something to be religious: "In other words," Berger says,
"the theologians world has become one world among many -- a generalization of the problem of relativity that goes considerably beyond the dimensions of the problem as previously posed by historical scholarship. To put it simply:  history posits the problem of relativity as a fact, the sociology of knowledge as a necessity of our condition."
That condition is, in fact, the better version of the idea of secularity -- secularity as a condition within which one, in America today, believes. It's quite possible for the sheriff to see this and experience this as religious, but it's not possible, in the modern situation, to do that without being aware of the many other possible ways it could be experience, the many other possible explanations available, the many other attributions that could have been made, leaving God out of Tennessee meth lab raids altogether.

Taylor thinks this idea is more pertinent to what's going on in the contemporary West, that this is actually the issue calling out to be looked at in religion in America today. He says it's this condition of belief that happened in the shift to secularity:
"The shift into secularity in this sense consists, among other things, of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace .... There are big differences in these societies in what it is to believe, stemming in part from the fact that belief is an option, and in some sense an embattled option in the Christian (or 'Post-Christian') society."
If we get past the politics of this Tennessee sheriff's prayer meeting -- as important as they may be -- and move to the question of what this demonstrates about religion in America now, looking at how this should be understood as a religious event and in what way it is a religious event, we come right to the matter of the secular condition.

It's not a non-religious condition, but the context in which such religious experience happens. Constitution or no, this is the set-up for the conflicts that play out, mostly, in politics and debates about spheres. The way think about the sheriff's claims of divine help, though, is through the question of the condition, and the underlying issues.